My Trek In Uttarakhand: Part I
09 Jul 2013
'I love this weather! I wanted it to rain!', I told Scientist. It was five in the morning, raining heavily, and she was complaining that constant rain would ruin the trek. I didn't see it. Hadn't we come here to be uncomfortable, I thought. Rain would be perfect.
The rain had started the day before, as I had walked around Rishikesh in my ugly white poncho. I went to Lakshman Jhula
and Ram Jhula
, which contrary to what their name suggested, weren't swings at all but hanging bridges. On them was a homogeneous mixture of 40% sardars and 60% other North Indian pilgrims, like most roads in Uttarakhand and below was the Ganga (nobody ever called it just Ganga there, though- it was always Ganga Ma or something similar), filled with river rafts and muddy from the rain. I had chased behind Scientist there, but finally met her only back at the hotel we were sharing.
Scientist worked at IIT-B. I had glanced at her web profile earlier, where she claimed to be a student in the middle of her PhD. Another kid like me, I thought. She was not
a student of course; like most professorial types, that was when she had last updated her profile. So when I saw the real Scientist, a middle-aged woman, I accused her right away of not updating her profile. I had addressed her by first name on the phone, and now it was too awkward for me to call her something else. I did not address for the duration of the trip. Apart from that, she was a nice person. She woke me up on schedule in the morning, and we sat together for the next two hours waiting for Cpt. Cool, our trek manager.
He arrived with Businessman, a Maru from Hyderabad, Chocolate Girl, who made chocolates, and Engineer, who came from Chennai and worked for TCS. Engineer was a year elder to me but he and I were more or less of the same mold. Chocolate Girl and Businessman were married, despite me hopefully asking if they were business partners. The roads looked slick with rain and our angry young driver had the ferocity of a young Schumacher. I marveled at his driving skills- at every one of his tight turns I expected the car to slide a little, but the ride was as smooth as it could be. It was too much for Scientist, however, with our speed and the rain, and the little landslides that appeared every so often.
We stopped at a dhaba and had tea and aloo paratha. There we met the other party- Corporate 1, who seemed to do everything in a polished corporate manner, his colleague Corporate 2, with a bright smile and Lawyer, Corporate 2's wife. There was also Paradox, a bald dentist with a tattoo on his forearm and Bachelor, who was also a businessman like Businessman. It was here we got the first hint of trouble- there was a landslide further ahead that had blocked traffic for miles.
After that it was a long, long drive through the mountains- ostensibly a highway, where traffic was stuck bumper to bumper. There were packs of sardars everywhere. Sardars on bikes, some of them moving ahead, some the other way, squeezing into gaps, riding inches away from the precipice, sometimes amiable, sometimes bullying. Scientist was in a pitiable state. She cringed when the sardars moved too close to our car, which happened every eight seconds, and they didn't care even if they hit the car and got the car to rock a little with the impact. Earlier she had forbid Chocolate Girl from getting out of the car near landslides. Like me in my pre-JEE days, the former no doubt had made FBD diagrams of the falling gravel in her head, where a small dislocation could bring the whole thing tumbling down. I found it funny, but the non-engineer Chocolate Girl cowed down when she heard words like 'equilibrium'. We both couldn't bear sitting in the car like the others though, me more so because I was at the back of the car. At one point I ran ahead to see how far the blockage was, but it was really far, and my progress was slowed with rumors of the landslide being cleared, at which people began running back to their cars.
Someone asked our driver to move a bit to the left, at which he inquired, 'Road ka Choudhari hai kya toooo?'. Unfortunately, that someone had his extended family in tow in his car as well as the car behind him. They naturally got chatting with our driver, inevitably leading to our driver commenting on the virtues of their mothers and sisters. They still hadn't come to blows yet, but then our driver called an old man old, who proceeded to slap our driver a few times. The pretender Chaudhari held our driver's face with his palms and calmly threatened to murder him, reminding me of a Bhojpuri movie I had watched. I'm quite confident that's where the pretender got the idea as well.
My response to all this was to cackle, but thankfully nobody saw or heard me. Scientist was preaching peace in her awkward Hindi, which juxtaposed with the Punjabi/UP Hindi of the fighters was too much for me. Our driver was plainly more scared than he had been at the time of his Chaudhari comment, but I had to admire him for not letting up even as ten other people were hoping to bloody him through the open car window. They plucked the glasses off his face as we drove off for good measure, and he had to stop and get them back, still cursing with no pause. I genuinely wanted to congratulate the driver for his efforts, but I was at the back of the car. It probably wouldn't have gone well with the others.
Finally in the afternoon, way behind schedule, we reached our campsite at Jayalgarh. We were supposed to stop at Lohajung, quite a distance ahead. The camp was about forty feet below the road, at the bank of the river Alaknanda. We had a delicious lunch as the muddied river raged on beside us. Our tents were almost furnished rooms, about fifteen feet high. The river had risen with the rain, and we could see the tops of some trees it had swallowed next to the dining area.
The rain was incessant. It tapered to a drizzle sometimes, but in the evening it began to fall in full earnest.?By then the news channels had some inkling about the situation. The Alaknanda was slowly rising. Paradox spoke to me about his opinion of abandoning the trip. That scared me, not the rains or the river, but the thought of abandoning the trek. I had too much invested in it. I wanted to go ahead with the trek, but that was ignored, depriving me of a nomination for Worst Decision of 2013.?At nighttime, we were asked to keep everything packed in case the river rose even more. I had slipped into my I-get-no-breaks and God-hates-me-for-my-atheism moods. Engineer and I alternated with our theories and opposed each other about whether we would actually have to move. Boss, who drove the other car but was also sort-of a trip manager, explained that the river was like a prism and it would be harder for it to rise with each meter. Not only would more water be required for every additional foot, the river would also flow faster because of the increased pressure. Boss was firmly of the opinion that the river would not rise more (that's what he told us at least). Although the rain paused enough sometimes to give me hope, it was not all that was feeding the river. There were mountains all around, and the water on them would eventually join the river.
At about 10 PM, the camp workers and the ever-helpful villagers began to earnestly prepare for the river rising even more. Tables were being tied to concrete pillars, furniture was being moved to higher ground and cigarettes were being smoked. Engineer and I went to sleep at about 11 PM, and the workers apparently got a bit drunk around this time. My last opinion was that the river wouldn't rise more; Engineer disagreed.
An hour past midnight. We were to move to a shop above the road. I donned my poncho and switched on my torch, and followed on of the workers up the sloping path out of the camp and onto the road. Others followed behind.
We slept in two rooms, on mattresses over wood chippings scattered all over the floor. A drunk, topless worker came into the room later to ask if it was all right if he slept there. Of course, somebody said. I woke up (if I remember correctly) at around 7 AM and there was hot tea waiting for me in the room. I didn't drink it, but put on my ugly poncho and went down to find Corporate1 and Paradox smiling and awake. The river had swallowed our tents almost completely. The camp workers were on rafts trying to retrieve the floating furniture, giving it to a team of villagers who were hauling it to the road, all in the steady rain.